The Rays continue their pursuit of the AL wild card while trying to avoid a fourth consecutive loss to the Blue Jays ace Saturday night at Tropicana Field.
Tampa Bay (86-71) was riding high after taking three of four at Boston last weekend to move within two games of the wild-card leading Red Sox. However, while the Red Sox followed by losing three of four to last-place Baltimore, the Rays dropped three of four at Yankee Stadium and fell 5-1 to Toronto on Friday. They now find themselves 2 1/2 games behind Boston, which had its Friday game in New York postponed by rain.
“It’s not going to be easy. It hasn’t been easy, and that’s OK,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “We’re learning a lot of lessons about ourselves right now.”
With five games remaining and the Los Angeles Angels also in the wild-card picture, Tampa Bay’s margin for error is getting slim.
“Come back (Saturday) and get back on the right track,” Maddon said. “We’re running out of time, but there is time. We’ve got to come back play our normal game.”
After pounding out 17 hits in a 15-8 win at New York on Thursday, the Rays managed only two hits from Matt Joyce(notes) and one from Casey Kotchman(notes) as they dropped their second straight to Toronto (80-77) following a five-game winning streak in the series.
Joyce is 8 for 19 with six RBIs in his last six games, but 0 for 9 against Romero (15-10, 2.98 ERA).
The left-hander is 3-1 with a 2.25 ERA and won three straight starts versus Tampa Bay this season. He was stellar in his only start at Tropicana Field this year when the only hit he allowed over eight innings was a homer to Desmond Jennings(notes) in a 3-1 win Aug. 2.
Trying to set a career high for victories in his final start of 2011, Romero is 8-1 with a 2.50 ERA in his last 11 starts. He gave up a pair of home runs in nine innings of a 3-2, 10-inning win over the Angels on Monday.
“I feel strong. I feel about as strong as I did opening day,” Romero said.
Scheduled Tampa Bay starter Jeff Niemann(notes) (11-7, 3.95) has not felt physically strong of late after he was scratched from his intended start Thursday in New York with back stiffness. He’s healthy enough to take the ball looking for his third straight winning start in this contest.
“This is not a drastic change for anything, and it will give me two extra days,” Niemann told the Rays’ official website. “It’s just something that kind of crept up. It’s just part of the deal.”
Niemann has allowed two runs in each of his last two starts, the most recent over five innings of a 4-3 win at Boston last Saturday. The right-hander is 1-1 with a 5.23 ERA against Toronto this year.
Kelly Johnson(notes), 2 for 6 versus Niemann, homered and drove in two runs Friday for the Blue Jays, who have won 11 of 17. The veteran second baseman is 8 for 19 with four RBIs in his last five games.